Amygdala Hijack: When Emotion Overpowers Reason

It’s been 12 years since Zinedine Zidane’s moment of headbutt took the world of football by surprise. In Berlin on July 9, 2006, France played the final World Cup match against Italy. And Zidane had to play his last match as a football player. In the extra time, France and Italy had locked in 1:1.

However, during the second half of extra time, Zidane headbutted Italian soccer player Marco Materazzi in the chest. As a result, Zidane was shown a red card and Italy won 5:3 on penalties for their first World Cup since 1982.

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As per sources, Materazzi had said something insulting to Zidane that provoked him to give a headbutt to Materazzi in the chest. This was the most iconic dismissal of a player in the soccer world game history.

Such an instance compels us to introspect as to why Zidane responded aggressively at such a crucial point in the game. What was Zidane thinking when he acted in such a way – an act that led France to lose the World cup.

He Was Thinking nothing!

Technically, Zidane was “not thinking at all” during that emotional rush that compelled Zidane to strike back. His brain was overpowered by emotions, not knowing what was happening.

Such an emotional hijacking of the brain is a neural takeover that stems in a part of the centre brain known as ‘Amygdala’. Instances like that of Zidane occur in our daily lives and we often react in a similar fashion not realizing what the consequences of such a reaction would be.

Typically, we regret later for such impassioned reactions, once we come out of that emotional state.

The question is why do we behave in such an irrational way? Why our impulsive feelings overpower our rational brain and recruit it to deal with such an emotional emergency?

This article answers this question as it talks about how amygdala hijack leads to emotional explosions and how one can diffuse such emotions in order to make wiser decisions.

Amygdala and Hippocampus

Amygdala is a small part in the limbic system of our brain that houses the entire emotional activity. It is an almond shaped cluster of nuclei located just above the brainstem near the bottom of the limbic ring.

Further, each side of the brain has an amygdala that is located towards the side of the head.

Hippocampus is a complex structure that is embedded deep inside the temporal lobe

Thus, Amygdala and Hippocampus are the two parts of the limbic system that perform a key role in motivated behavior and emotion. All the learning and remembering takes place in these limbic structures.

The amygdala is the storehouse of emotional memories. Whereas the hippocampus gives context to emotions. In other words, Hippocampus stores just the facts of the events and occurences while the Amygdala stores the emotional essence of those events.

Role of Amygdala

As mentioned in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, Joseph LeDoux, a Neurologist at the Center for Neural Science at New York City, was the first to discover the significant role of Amygdala in the emotional brain. His research findings lay emphasis on the fact that how Amygdala takes control over the entire brain activity during an emotional emergency. It signifies that Amygdala starts responding even before the thinking brain begins to respond.

The thinking brain takes much time in responding as it analyzes information and give a much more sophisticated response relative to the one given by the Amygdala.

Furthermore, research studies have brought to the forefront evidences that a person is unable to understand the emotional importance of given events where amygdala is severed from the rest of the brain. Patients with such seizures were found to completely (i) lose interest in people; (ii) were unable to recognize family, friends and relatives; and (iii) were expressionless.

Therefore, to understand amygdala hijack, neuroscientists came up with a detailed study regarding the neural dynamics of emotion by studying fear.

Amygdala and Fear

Fear is one of the prominent emotions that is significant for human survival. In primitive times, fear acted as a wise guide for our ancestors as it saved them from predators or interlopers. Fear prepared their body to fight or escape when they had such dangerous encounters.

However, in modern times, where civilization presented a new set of challenges and realities, such primitive emotional outbursts left us suffering from misguided fears like anxiety, worries, panic attacks etc. This is because in modern times, we do not face such threats to our survival like being attacked by wild animals or interlopers.

But, we continue to face modern day challenges with such automatic impulses. This is because these automatic reactions have got imprinted in our nervous system as a result of its prolonged use in the human prehistory.

These instant reactions made the difference between death and survival in primitive times. These emotional impulses were fit for coping with primitive dangers but are not appropriate for facing the modern day world.

So, such fight or flight reactions to modern day challenges triggers the Amygdala. Such a stimulation of the Amygdala instantly leads to hijacking of the brain, releasing hormones that increase reactivity in the other parts of the brain as well.

That is, such an emotional emergency drives even the rational brain, not even giving it a chance to understand the situation at hand.

So let’s understand how such a Amygdala hijack takes place inside the brain.

How Does it Happen?

Suppose you get disturbed by a crashing sound coming from the adjoining room in the middle of the night. That is the time when fear starts sinking in. So what happens inside the brain that makes you experience fear in situations like these?

It is the amygdala as well as the neural pathway of fear that activates your cardiovascular system, muscles, increases your heart beat, makes you sweat, brings that fearful expression on your face and makes you more alert.

So, the moment you hear the crashing sound, these raw sound waves pass first through the ear to the brainstem and finally reach the thalamus. From the thalamus the signals are separated into two branches.

Majority of these signals take the longer route and go to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe where these sounds are assessed and analysed.

However, a small set of these neural signals take the shorter path and get straightaway passed on to the amygdala and the nearby hippocampus. This results in a quicker but less precise response.

Role of Hippocampus

As mentioned earlier, the function of the hippocampus is to register the memories of various inputs and to give context to such memories. It is the hippocampus that recognizes the differences between one sensory input from the other.

For instance, in the above example it is the hippocampus that helps us understand whether the sound is a collision or just an ordinary sound.

Role of Auditory Cortex

Likewise, the auditory cortex is responsible for complex analysis of the sensory input. For instance, in the above example, auditory cortex helps us decide if the sound is that of a dog, cat, an object falling from a height, shuttering of window etc.

Working of Amygdala, Hippocampus and Auditory Cortex

Thus, the hippocampus which is key storehouse of memory starts comparing these sounds with memories of sounds already registered with it. On the other hand, the auditory cortex works parallel to the hippocampus and undertakes a higher level analysis of such a sound.

After the auditory cortex assesses the sound, these signals are sent back to the amygdala and hippocampus that start comparing these sounds with similar memories already registered.

If both the amygdala and hippocampus conclude that the sound is an ordinary one, a general alert is passed on to the entire brain regarding the given situation. However, if such a sound is not a familiar one, the circuit between amygdala, hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex gets activated.

Such a stimulation of this circuit leads to increased certainty about the given situation. This increases your attention thereby making you more anxious to determine the source of the sound.

What Happens When Amygdala and Hippocampus Fail To Identify The Sensory Input?

If still such limbic structures are unable to identify the source of the sound, the amygdala gets triggered and it activates other areas of the brain like hypothalamus, brainstem and autonomic nervous system.

As a result, the hypothalamus releases fight or flight hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline. Further, body gets prepared for movement and leads to increasing heartbeat, blood pressure, sweating, etc.

This means that the shorter pathway that gives direct inputs to the amygdala from the senses starts responding even before such inputs are fully registered by the executive brain or neocortex.

So this makes us conclude that the amygdala can give a faster emotional response through this emergency route even as a parallel circuit works between amygdala and the neocortex.

In other words, amygdala triggers us to give an automatic reaction. While the much slower neocortex gives its more sophisticated response after fully analysing the given input.

Symptoms of Amygdala Hijack

The symptoms of amygdala hijack are due to the release of fight or flight hormone known as Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus.

This hormone leads to the fight or flight reaction in the human body with the help of a number of other hormones released during the emotional hijack. This release of hormones leads to symptoms like:

  • Increasing heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Dilating pupils
  • Mobilizing muscle movements
  • Fixating facial expressions
  • Freezing unrelated movements
  • Slows down breathing
  • Increased Sweat
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